Learning to fly again

December 16, 2021

Why the case for Zoom meetings is more clear than ever.

After 2020 kept us grounded, many of us took our first steps back in the air in 2021. A trip for leisure or to see family, or more rarely for business. But for many of us, while we welcomed the chance to go somewhere warm or see loved ones, 2021’s return to the skies was a changed experience. The twin challenges of Covid and climate mean the experience is fundamentally transformed, and might never return to “normal”. 

The year started on a positive note: as vaccines (eventually) rolled out, we looked forward to a time when we could put this pandemic behind us. Our grounding appeared to be temporary, and so we took to Skyscanner and consulted with our colleagues about where we might travel to for work and pleasure. 

But the Covid risk hadn’t gone away entirely, and we saw it come roaring back by the end of the year. And of course, the climate impact of flying didn’t change one iota. In fact we’re getting further confirmation that aviation’s non-CO2 effects make flying by far the worst activity for warming the planet. This comes on top of the harming CO2 effects we have known about for decades. Our break from flying was the greatest gift many of us gave to the climate. 

So while vaccines meant we could fly, we were left with the question: should we fly? Ask each of my colleagues at T&E, and the answer would likely have been a little different. Many had family they wanted to see (myself included) and others wanted to escape a very wet Belgian summer for somewhere sunny. But others had learned that a break from the office does not need to mean a trip to the airport.  

While our personal holidays were, obviously, a personal choice, as an organization, we had a bigger decision to make about our return to business travel. Our work is very social – we seek to convince and cajole, not just in Brussels, but in capitals across Europe. Do we go back to traipsing across Europe, or do we stick to the comforts and discomforts of Zoom? 

The benefits of minimising business travel, especially when it’s by air, are clear. We had more budget for the rest of our work, allowing us to put more money into research and training. We had less time away from family and friends. And because people in other capitals weren’t expecting personal visits, we were able to be more efficient, reaching more people in more places from our desk. 

The climate benefits are clear. Take a flight today and it’s 100% powered by fossil fuels. In Europe, this is starting to change, albeit slowly. One of the highlights of 2021 was the European Commission unveiling binding legislation to mandate the use of fossil alternatives in flying, a proposal we have long championed. But it will take time to scale those fuels up, and by 2030 we’ll be lucky to have more than 5% fossil alternatives in the tank. The Commission proposed important measures to better price aviation’s climate impact, through kerosene taxation and reforms to its carbon market, but they will cut but not eliminate the climate impact of flying.

So for now, the best thing we can do is fly less, and when it comes to business travel, this is especially the case. Because really, why would we go back to flying for work as much as we did in 2019? The cost, the climate, the inefficiency: the case for more Zoom is clear. Any CEO who says otherwise needs their climate pledges closely examined.

The year ends on something of a dud note, as new restrictions are imposed, and new variants remind us that the end is ultimately not yet in sight. From what has passed so far, we can take with us the reminder that whenever this ever ends, flying for work should also be an option, not a necessity.

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